Bryce Drew starts new challenge at Vanderbilt

Bryce Drew didn’t temper expectations when he took over the Vanderbilt men’s basketball program in April.

He stated his goal outright: He wants to take the team to its first Final Four.

The climb up starts this year, as Drew is trying to establish an identity for his first Commodores team as it plays in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational at Orleans Arena on Friday.

“We definitely think there’s a lot of potential here,” Drew said. “We know it’s going to be a process, it doesn’t happen overnight. But we’re excited to keep working with these guys and the group that will be coming in next year.”

Vanderbilt was picked to finish sixth in the SEC in Drew’s first season, after his successful five-year run as head coach of Valparaiso, which just won the Men Who Speak Up Main Event tournament Wednesday night at the MGM Grand Garden by beating BYU. The Crusaders went 124-49 under Drew’s watch, which led to two NCAA tournament berths and three Horizon League Coach of the Year awards.

Now he’s trying to bring his philosophies and systems to a team that reached the NCAA tournament’s First Four last year, behind first-round NBA draft picks Wade Baldwin IV and Damian Jones.

“He’s very detail-oriented, that’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed about him,” senior Nolan Cressler said. “He stresses the little things every single day. He’s not a hothead of any sorts but he’s also very assertive.”

Cressler said he’s enjoyed listening to the new coaching staff because of the perspective it brings. Drew and two of his assistants, Roger Powell and Casey Shaw, spent time in the NBA.

Drew had the longest NBA tenure of the three, playing point guard for four teams between 1998 and 2004. He was the first Valparaiso player in history to be picked in the first round, months after making “The Shot,” a buzzer-beater against No. 4 seed Mississippi in the first round of the 1998 NCAA tournament.

“We’ve all obviously seen it,” Cressler said. “A couple of years ago, I couldn’t tel you who the team was, I just recognized ‘The Shot.’ Now, obviously, we know it was coach.”

Drew, now on the bench, empowers his players to make highlight plays of their own. His offensive system gives a lot of freedom to players, with a few restrictions built in.

The system has allowed junior Matthew Fisher-Davis to flourish so far, as the guard is averaging 17.3 points per game on 45.5 percent shooting. Senior Luke Kornet, a preseason Second Team All-SEC selection, is averaging 15.8 points despite playing injured early in the year.

The offense combined to average nearly 76 points in Vanderbilt’s first four games, but the freedom also led to some miscues in that span with 54 turnovers.

“We’d like to be under 10 (per game),” Drew said. “Hopefully as they get used to that freedom and then the restrictions within it, those turnovers will stay down.”

Mistakes with the ball in part caused Vanderbilt to start the year 2-2, but that hasn’t caused Drew to stray from his short- or long-term goals for his new program.

“We want to make the NCAA tournament and go on a run,” Drew said. “I want to see a joy in all of us from playing basketball, and playing with passion and giving our best. And if we see a huge improvement in those areas from the beginning to the end, we’ll be excited about it.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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